Thoughts from Students who have GSI-ed Outside the Math Department

Math graduate students find many interesting opportunities to fund their graduate studies at Michigan. Read about some of these below!

EECS 376 (Yuxin Wang): Teaching a Computer Science course is a unique opportunity, the benefits of which I did not even fully realize when I applied.  When I learned that the EECS department was hiring GSIs from Math, I was not confident at all that I would get the job. The course that I was applying for was Theory of Computation, and coming from an Analysis/PDE background, my knowledge in Computer Science was limited to an intro programming class that I took years ago. Nevertheless, the desire to try something new urged me to start learning the class from scratch on my own. The professor who interviewed me was mostly interested in that I am good at explaining abstract and complicated concepts to students using analogy and examples, and that my teaching record shows great comments from previous students; I was only asked a handful of questions regarding the actual contents of the course, which I fortunately learned by going through the textbook.

As the semester progressed, I started to appreciate this opportunity even more. I had always wanted to learn data structure and algorithms on my own, and what serves as better incentive to learn than the fact that you have to teach them tomorrow? My understanding of algorithms was enhanced enormously through explaining concepts and examples to students (over and over again), which I would perhaps never achieve by taking a course alone. Moreover, as I had received two years of teaching training in the math intro program, students loved my teaching style, and many wrote very nice comments in the teaching evaluation.

In addition, the GSI position offers valuable practice on project/time management skills. The teaching team consists of professors, GSIs and IAs (roughly, undergraduates who serve as half a GSI). As the professors mainly focus on teaching, GSIs are also responsible for interviewing and hiring graders (that’s right, GSIs don’t have to grade homework!), reviewing the proposed homework problems and notes written by IAs, and coordinating homework/exam release/grading/regrade issues. I would say that the nature of work resembles more of a co-coordinator in the math intro program than a regular GSI, though the overall workload is similar/slightly less than a regular GSI.

As a side note, since grad students are only promised five years of funding from the math department, working outside math may provide more funding opportunities for sixth-year students. It could also be good to seek such a position if you need funding for a sixth year.

EECS 475 (Zhan Jiang): After Karen Smith put forward my interest in teaching EECS, the professor of the course contacted me for a conversation towards the end of fall semester.  He told me what I have to do in this course and asked me whether I want to be hired for Winter semester. That’s the only interview I had and I got the job after I said “Yes!” As a GSI in this course, I was expected to come to every class, learn the materials ahead of time so that I can handle office hours and teach problem sessions. My situation was slightly different. Because I had some schedule conflicts, I took the job of writing homework problems instead of teaching problem sessions.

The course is taught at north campus. Besides coming to the classes (3h per week), we meet every week for 1h to discuss all the materials, e.g., problems to put on homework and materials to cover in problem sessions. Together with office hours (2h per week), that’s all the time I have to be physically at north campus. For the rest of the week, I can work anywhere on the homework or students’ questions on piazza.

This course is about cryptography. The subject itself is not hard to learn and it’s very suitable for math Ph.D.’s. It requires a lot of proofs. Most of the course materials and homework questions are about proving things. You probably don’t need any knowledge about computer science in order to learn everything by yourself. Meanwhile, you do need to know a lot about TeX (which most of us do) and how to use Git (which is easy to learn) in order to sync your write-ups.

To me, the best part of this job is that I don’t have to grade any homework. So I spend more time on more creative works. For example, a large part of the job is for me to come up with different homework questions, which is a bit challenging but a byte of fun!

EECS 203 (Rishi Sonthalia): I was a GSI for EECS 203 over the summer. This experience was very different than teaching 115/116.  In particular, EECS 203 has a lot more “administrative” work. By this I mean, we (all GSIs and the lecturer) met every Friday and discussed all the HW, quizzes, and/or exams. We spent quite a lot of time writing questions, although significantly less than co-coordinating 115/116.

In terms of class time, I only had class once a week. This class time is spent mostly doing review and solving problems. So it can be run in an 100% IBL manner. In addition, we also had to hold office hours. Since the class is a lot bigger and anyone can attend any GSIs office hour, a lot more students tend to attend office hours. Overall the amount of time spent is comparable to 115/116. It is just a different type of time commitment.

ENGLISH 125 (Rachel Webb):  The Sweetland Fellows program prepares graduate students to teach a semester of English 125 (freshman writing) from the perspective of their own discipline. From January to April, I attended a weekly seminar (paid, and with catered lunch) where we discussed various aspects of writing pedagogy. The discussion and debate in this seminar provided an academic experience orthogonal to what I get in the math program. From April to August I was paid to write my syllabus and assignments for a math-flavored version of English 125, and from September to December I taught the class. I was also required to attend the English department’s new GSI training seminar during this semester.

Teaching the class itself was a lot of fun. I enjoyed reading 18 highly varied essays much more than grading the same problem on hundreds of exams. I also really liked having so much control over my classroom—unlike calculus, where we have to follow the template provided by the department, I could design this class to be exactly how I wanted it. I spent fewer hours in class and perhaps fewer hours prepping for class than when I teach calculus, but I did spend a lot more time grading. Overall this was a bigger time commitment than teaching calculus, perhaps only because I was new to teaching writing and I was designing the course myself.
My favorite parts of this program were the side benefits, not directly teaching the class itself. I learned how to structure effective peer review sessions (application: how to write feedback surveys that prompt useful feedback). All the GSI training was from a completely different perspective than what the math department offers, so I learned a lot of complementary teaching techniques. Finally, I learned so much about how to write well, perhaps most valuably what “good writing” means to non-math academics.

Ross Business School (Anthony Della Pella): I have worked with the Ross School of Business at the University for several years. I originally became involved with Ross when I answered a job search email looking for an academic success coach. The business school offers several programs, including coaching, to help students succeed in their freshman classes. For coaching they employ graduate student instructors as well as advanced undergraduate students to serve as mentors in the relevant classes. I have been a coach for both Math 105 and Math 115 and enjoyed the experience as it allows a more informal and student guided approach to helping students in their math class than being a GSI. My role as a success coach was to guide a group of 4-5 students through course material during weekly meetings. The meetings would take on different forms depending on the week — sometimes the students would prefer me to give a lecture and other times it better suited them to have a Q&A session.

In addition to coaching at the business school, I was the Calculus I course instructor for the Ross Summer Connection (RSC) program over the summer. The program is intended to ensure that a group of about 40 Ross students are prepared to take their classes in the fall semester. Passing math 115 is a requirement in the first year at the business school so the program is taken seriously by both the administration and the students taking the class.

RSC lasts about four weeks in late summer (mid July through mid August) and consists of four lectures a week along with office hours. You are also required to spend time at several “study table” sessions each week which are open forums where students can ask questions. Responsibilities also include creating and grading homework assignments as well as exams/quizzes.

This experience was beneficial in many ways and allows one to meet and work with many great students. First, the RSC program (along with coaching) is organized by a great group of administrators who take a genuine interest in the success and well being of both students and instructors. The RSC students come from a diverse background and all bring something different to the table making the process of getting to know everyone and working with them an excellent experience. Finally, the course is much more open ended than the traditional math 115 class taught during the school year and so provides an opportunity to independently organize and teach your own course.

MATH 385 (Francesca Gandini): I was the course assistant for Math 385, Mathematics for Elementary Teachers,  in Fall 2017 and 2018. It meets twice a week, Monday and Wednesday, for three hours (there are two sections of the course). The GSI role is to assist the main instructor, who is usually an IBL post-doc.

The approach in Math 385 is exploratory and conceptual. Think about the following questions: how can you explain why addition in column works to a third grader? What does it conceptually mean to multiply quantities? What type of visualizations can you associate to the operation of division? Personally, I think I never concretely understood operations with fractions until I worked on this course.

There is nearly no lecturing in this class, so your work in class will be leading groups of students in solving challenging problems, encouraging them to present solutions, and leading whole class discussions with goals like understanding  the meaning of a solution approach, highlighting the strengths of a presentation, pointing out interesting mistakes that can help the class understand a concept better, and so on.

Outside of class, you will hold office hours and grade written homework (with the help of the other instructor). You will solely grade conceptual homework: students will encounter new problems and they will have to present and justify their solution approach. Quality of exposition is an important element of the homework, and one of the goals for the students is to learn to write a mathematically sound and clear explanation for their reasoning.

I really enjoyed teaching this course especially because of my interest in using the IBL pedagogy. I also appreciate the conceptual and beautiful structure of seemingly easy topics in mathematics. Finally, I found it very important to convey my love for mathematics to future teachers and I worked hard to convince them that math is not made of plain procedures, but it is creatively discovered in working on interesting problems with your colleagues.

MATH 489 – Math for Elementary School Teachers (Robert Cochrane): I was the GSI for Math 489 in Winter 2019. The position is usually advertised to Math Grads in October for the Winter semester. Although this position is open to students from all departments, the lecturers in charge of the course generally prefer to see applications from Math students. You will need to fill out a short form online, and submit a CV, but having prior experience with the intro program will usually give you a good chance to at least be interviewed for the position.

The course is a follow-up to Math 385 and focuses on Proportional Reasoning and Geometry. The class is strongly IBL-style – you will rarely have to lecture at the board, but you will have to facilitate discussions, answer students’ questions, and ask them questions which will further their engagement and understanding. There are a mix of students, with some more interested in math than others, but the course is nicely paced, so even less confident students have time to develop a good mathematical understanding of the concepts.

There are usually two sections for the course, each with around 10-15 students. Each section meets for 1.5 hours on both Mondays and Wednesdays. Usually the Wednesday class will involve the students working on new problems, and discussing new definitions and theorems. At the end of the Wednesday class, the students will be given 2-3 homework problems to work on and submit the following Monday. The Monday class will consist mostly of student presentations of those homework problems. Although at the start of the semester you will usually attend all classes (i.e. all 6 hours), later in the semester, the lecturer you work with will often be able to handle the Monday class on their own.

Your responsibilities can vary a little depending on which lecturer you work with, and also with your own interests. You will usually have to attend at least the Wednesday classes, hold 3 office hours a week, help to decide which students present each week based on presentation plans that the students submit, and assist with grading. The students submit long-form solutions to the homework problems each week, which can be a lot to read through, but the lecturer will help, and often there will be an undergraduate course assistant who will also grade. You generally won’t have to plan lessons, as the course utilizes some very well-developed worksheets.

Overall, I really enjoyed teaching this course. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in pedagogy who would like to try something different from the introductory calculus sequence. The IBL style worked well with these students, as they are natural presenters, and comfortable around each other, so are unafraid of making mistakes. The students are also often interested in hearing multiple ways to explain concepts, and I found this to be a good challenge! You will work closely with the lecturer and (hopefully!) develop a good relationship with them, and have the opportunity to take on responsibilities of your choice (e.g. writing exam questions).